Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

Travels in Arabia Deserta

by Charles M. Doughty (1843-1926)


"It is not comfortable to have to write about [Travels in] Arabia Deserta," T.E. Lawrence wrote in his introduction to the 1908 abridgment of Doughty's idiosyncratic monument. "I have studied it for ten years, and have grown to consider it a book not like other books, but something particular, a bible of its kind. To turn round now and reckon its merits and demerits seems absurd. I do not think that any traveller in Arabia before or after Mr. Doughty has qualified himself to praise the book - much less to blame it."

Lawrence was not alone in that assessment, although Edward Garnett, who abridged the legendary traveler's 1,100-page book for what he hoped would be a wider readership, was forced to agree with Doughty's biographer that the book was possessed of a "strange style, which, maintained throughout a work of over 600,000 words, discouraged even the very elect." In small bites, however, the work's style is quite digestible. Our brief excerpt, from the chapter titled "The Setting-Forth from Damascus," finds Doughty the only professed Nasrâny, or Christian, in a company of 6,000 Muslim pilgrims traveling across "this wild waste earth" by camel caravan to Mecca in the autumn of 1876:

The new dawn appearing we removed not yet. The day risen the tents were dismantled, the camels led in ready to their companies, and halted beside their loads. We waited to hear the cannon shot which should open that year's pilgrimage. It was near ten o'clock when we heard the signal gun fired, and then, without any disorder litters were suddenly heaved and braced upon the bearing beasts, their charges laid upon the kneeling camels, and the thousands of riders, all born in the caravan countries, mounted in silence. As all is up, the drivers are left standing upon their feet, or sit to rest out the latest moments on their heels: they with other camp and tent servants must ride those three hundred leagues upon their bare soles, although they faint; and are to measure the ground again upward with their weary feet from the holy places. At the second gun, fired a few moments after, the Pasha's litter advances and after him goes the head of the caravan column: other fifteen or twenty minutes we, who have places in the rear, must halt, that is until the long train is unfolded before us; then we must strike our camels and the great pilgrimage is moving. There go commonly three or four camels abreast and seldom five: the length of the slow-footed multitude of men and cattle is near two miles, and the width some hundred yards in the open plains. The hajjaj were this year by their account (which may be above the truth) 6000 persons; of these more than half are serving men on foot; and 10,000 of all kinds of cattle, the most camels, then mules, hackneys, asses and a few dromedaries of Arabians returning in security of the great convoy to their own districts. We march in an empty waste, a plain of gravel, where nothing appeared and never a road before us. Hermon, now to the backward, with his mighty shoulders of snows closes the northern horizon; to the nomads of the East a noble landmark of Syria, they name it Towîl éth-Thalj 'the height of snow' (of which they have a small experience in the rainless sun-stricken land of Arabia). It was a Sunday, when this pilgrimage began, and holiday weather, the summer azure light was not all faded from the Syrian heaven; the 13th of November, 1876; and after twelve miles away, (a little, which seemed long in the beginning,) we came to the second desert station, where the tents which we had left behind us at Muzeyrib, stood already pitched in white ranks before us in the open wilderness. Thus every day the light tent-servants' train outwent our heavy march, in which, as every company has obtained their place from the first remove, this they observe continually until their journey's end. Arriving we ride apart, every company to their proper lodgings: this encampment is named Ramta.

It is their caravan prudence, that in the beginning of a long way the first shall be a short journey: the beasts feel their burdens, the passengers have fallen in that to their riding in the field. Of a few sticks (gathered hastily by the way), of the desert bushes, cooking fires are soon kindled before all the tents; and since here are no stones at hand to set under the pots as Beduins use, the pilgrim hearth is a scraped-out hole, so that their vessels may stand, with the brands put under, upon the two brinks, and with very little fuel they make ready their poor messes. The small military tents of the Haj escort of troopers and armed dromedary riders, Ageyl, (the most Nejd men) are pitched round about the great caravan encampment, at sixty and sixty paces: in each tent fellowship the watches are kept till the day dawning. A paper lantern after sunset is hung before every one to burn all night where a sentinel stands with his musket, and they suffer none to pass their lines unchallenged. Great is all townsmen's dread of the Beduw, as if they were the demons of this wild waste earth, ever ready to assail the Haj passengers; and there is no Beduwy durst chop logic in the dark with these often ferocious shooters, that might answer him with lead and who are heard, from time to time, firing backward into the desert all night; and at every instant crying down the line kerakô kerakô (sentinel) the next and the next men thereto answering with haderûn (ready). I saw not that any officer went the rounds. So busy is the first watch, whilst the camp is waking. These crickets begin to lose their voices about midnight, when for aught I could see the most of their lights were out; and it is likely the unpaid men spare their allowance: those poor soldiers sell their candles privily in the Haj market.

In the first evening hour there is some merrymake of drum-beating and soft fluting, and Arcadian sweetness of the Persians singing in the tents about us; in others they chant together some piece of their devotion. In all the pilgrims' lodgings are paper lanterns with candle burning; but the camp is weary and all is soon at rest. The hajjies lie down in their clothes the few night hours till the morrow gun-fire; then to rise suddenly for the march, and not knowing how early they may hear it, but this is as the rest, after the Pasha's good pleasure and the weather.

At half past five o'clock was the warning shot for the second journey. The night sky was dark and showery when we removed, and cressets of iron cages set upon poles were borne to light the way, upon serving men's shoulders, in all the companies. The dawn discovered the same barren upland before us, of shallow gravel and clay ground upon limestone.

The Derb el-Haj is no made road, but here a multitude of cattle-paths beaten hollow by the camels' tread, in the marching thus once in the year, of so many generations of the motley pilgrimage over this waste. Such many equal paths lying together one of the ancient Arabian poets has compared to the bars of the rayed Arabic mantle. Commonly a shot is heard near mid-day, the signal to halt; we have then a short resting-while, but the beasts are not unloaded and remain standing. Men alight and the more devout bow down their faces to say the canonical prayer towards Mecca. Our halt is twenty minutes; some days it is less or even omitted, as the Pasha has deemed expedient, and in easy marches may be lengthened to forty minutes. "The Pasha (say the caravaners) is our Sooltan." Having marched twenty miles at our left hand appeared Mafrak, the second Haj road tower, after the great kella at Muzeyrib, but it is ruinous and as are some other towers abandoned. The kellas are fortified water stations weakly garrisoned; they may have been built two or three centuries and are of good masonry. The well is in the midst of a kella; the water, raised by a simple machine of drum and buckets, whose shaft is turned by a mule's labour, flows forth to fill a cistern or birket without the walls. Gear and mules must be fetched down with the Haj from Damascus upon all the desert road, to Medain Salih. The cisterns are jealously guarded; as in them is the life of the great caravan. No Aarab (nomads) are suffered to draw of that water; the garrisons would shoot out upon them from the tower, in which closed with an iron-plated door, they are sheltered themselves all the year from the insolence of the nomads. The kellas stand alone, as it were ships, in the immensity of the desert; they are not built at distances of camps, but according to the opportunity of water; it is more often two or even three marches between them. The most difficult passage of the pilgrim road before Medina, is that four or five marches in high ground next above Medain Salih where are neither wells nor springs, but two ruined kellas with their great birkets to be filled only by torrent water, so that many years, in a nearly rainless country they lie dry. A nejjab or post, who is a Beduin dromedary-rider, is therefore sent up every year from Medain Salih, bringing word to Damascus, in ramathan before the pilgrimage, whether there be water run in the birket at Dar el-Hamra, and reporting likewise of the state of the next waters. This year he was a messenger of good tidings, (showers and freshets in the mountains had filled the birket) and returned with the Pasha's commandment in his mouth, (since in the garrisons there are few or none lettered) to set a guard over the water. But in years when the birket is empty, some 1500 girbies are taken up in Damascus by the Haj administration to furnish a public supplement of five days water for all the caravan: these water-skins are loaded betwixt the distant waterings, at the government cost, by Beduin carriers.

The caravaners pass the ruined and abandoned kellas with curses between their teeth, which they cast, I know not how justly, at the Haj officers and say "all the birkets leak and there is no water for the hajjaj; every year there is money paid out of the treasury that should be for the maintenance of the buildings; these embezzling pashas swallow the public silver; we may hardly draw now of any cistern before Maan, but after the long marches must send far to seek it, and that we may find is not good to drink." Turkish peculation is notorious in all the Haj service, which somewhat to abate certain Greek Christians, Syrians, are always bursars in Damascus of the great Mohammedan pilgrimage: - this is the law of the road, that all look through their fingers. The decay of the road is also, because much less of the public treasure is now spent for the Haj service. The impoverished Ottoman government has withdrawn the not long established camp at Maan, and greatly diminished the kella allowances; but the yearly cost of the Haj road is said to be yet 50,000 [Pounds Sterling], levied from the province of Syria, where the Christians cry out, it is tyranny that they too must pay from their slender purses, for this seeking hallows of the Moslemîn. A yearly loss to the empire is the surra or "bundles of money" to buy a peaceful passage of the abhorred Beduins: the half part of Western Arabia is fed thereby, and yet it were of more cost, for the military escort to pass "by the sword." The destitute Beduins will abate nothing of their yearly pension: that which was paid to their fathers, they believe should be always due to them out of the treasures of the "Sooltan" and if any less be proffered them they would say "The unfaithful pashas have devoured it!" the pilgrimage should not pass, and none might persuade them, although the Dowla (Sultan's Empire) were perishing. It were news to them that the Sultan of Islam is but a Turk and of strange blood: they take him to be as the personage of a prophet, king of the world by the divine will, unto whom all owe obedience. Malcontent, as has been often seen, they would assault the Haj march or set upon some corner of the camp by night, hoping to drive off a booty of camels: in warfare they beset the strait places, where the firing down of a hundred beggarly matchlocks upon the thick multitude must cost many lives; so an Egyptian army of Ibrahåm Pasha was defeated in the south country of Harb Beduins.

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